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Does Apple build in obsolescence?

Apple's new laptop can't be repaired by users. But does anyone care?

The inside of a MacBook Pro with retina display. Complicated. Photograph: iFixit.com

Apple's new MacBook Pro has been criticised by the do-it-yourself repair company iFixit for being the least repairable laptop in the company's history. They gave it a 1/10 for repairability, highlighting the fact that the RAM is soldered into the motherboard, the battery is glued to the frame, and the screen is bonded to the glass, so that the entire upper lid needs to be replaced if it gets scratched.

Felix Salmon declared that this was part of Apple's "strategy of built-in obsolescence", writing:

Apple’s post-purchase revenue from every one of these new laptops that it sells will be significantly higher than what it’s seeing right now on the MacBook Pro line. . .

Apple Computer became Apple Inc back in 2007, and the overwhelming majority of its half-trillion-dollar market cap has absolutely nothing to do with revenues from selling laptops or desktops. The real money, it turns out, is in flows rather than stocks: the income stream from selling songs and apps, or from a cellphone contract, is much more valuable than a one-off computer purchase.

And it seems to me that with this latest model, Apple is trying to turn its computers into a flow product, too. It’s a beautiful shiny object — but it has much more built-in obsolescence than anything the Pro line has ever had in the past. And the more frequently Apple can persuade its customers to upgrade or replace their computers, the more its Mac operation will be worth. You might adore that Retina display now. But I suspect you’ll be replacing it sooner than you might think.

Some of what Salmon writes is just wrong. The "real money" for Apple has never been in selling songs and apps. The app store paid out $700m to developers in the fourth quarter of 2011, which, with the company's 70:30 split, means they grossed just $300m in that quarter. The company's overall revenue for that quarter was $28.3bn, and it's profit was $6.62bn; well over 20 times what it grossed from the app store. And that $300m doesn't take into account the cost of running the damn thing. Add it all together, and the situation is unlikely to have changed from February 2011, when Apple's then-CFO Peter Oppenheimer confirmed that "we run the App Store just a little over breakeven".

The fact is that Apple sells apps, and music, movies, TV shows and magazine subscriptions, in order to sell hardware. According to Horace Deidu, they make the vast majority of their income and profits from the iPhone, but the Mac and iPad divisions also both comfortably beat software and music sales. Apple has always made its money from selling big-ticket items at a healthy margin every other year or so. The real change for the company hasn't been that it's gone from hardware to software, but from computers to mp3 players and then smartphones.

With that in mind, it is of course still the case – and always has been – that Apple is interested in selling you computers more frequently. That's why they work so hard to cultivate a "gotta have it" air around all their new releases, and why they work hard at customer retention, to ensure that buying a new one is an experience you look back on fondly. But to make the leap from that to "Apple designs its computers to be un-upgradeable so that you buy new ones" misunderstands the company's aims and strengths.

A similar objection to the one Salmon is voicing now was made when the first iPhone came out, in 2007, with a battery sealed in the phone. And the response now is the same as it was then: how could they make what they made without those tradeoffs?

A sealed battery was the price for making a phone which competitors believed was literally impossible, and a bonded screen is the price for shipping a laptop with a resolution of 2880x1800 in a body smaller and lighter than the one which was being replaced.

The real question to be asked of Apple isn't whether they are going from a nice company which sells you infinitely upgradeable computers to a nasty one which deliberately kills yours after two years so you have to buy a new one. The question is whether Apple still views the sort of people who upgrade their computers as a viable market at all.

Salmon cites TUAW's Richard Gaywood, who wrote:

My last MacBook Pro saw a little over 2.5 years as my primary computer, and I would expect no less of any computer I was paying in excess of $2200/£1800 for. In that time, I upgraded the memory once, the hard drive three times, and replaced the battery once. None of these options would be available to me with a new MBPwRD.

Undoubtedly, Gaywood will find the switch in focus from repairability to thinness and lightness painful. But he is simply not the sort of customer Apple can afford to care about. I am hardly a technophobe, but my current MacBook pro has spent the last four and a half years as my primary computer, and in that time I have replaced the battery twice (once under warranty, and once not). That's it.

The cost to Apple of making its laptops black boxes is that the vanishingly small proportion of its customers who are "power users" get annoyed, and maybe some even switch to bulkier, more user-serviceable Windows or Linux machines; the advantage is that it can continue to justifiably claim to make the best computers in the business.